- Sarah Morton dukes it out with depression in her one-woman show, 4 Minutes to Happy.
The Exonerated -- Outside the friendly confines of Texas, some Death Row inmates are actually freed when unmatched DNA or belated confessions from real perps pop open the jail doors. This concert-style production, assembled from interviews with formerly doomed inmates by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, interweaves the stories of six people who spent from 2 to 22 years on Death Row for murders they did not commit. It's a stark and stunning piece of theater, but it isn't pretty stuff. The Dobama cast, under the perceptive direction of Joel Hammer, turns in some remarkable performances. While the script does an admirable job of tracing each survivor's tragic journey through legal hell, we never truly experience what it feels like to be totally innocent, behind bars, awaiting death. This shortcoming, plus the absence of broader context for each of the main stories, mutes the overall impact of the work. Through March 20 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-3396. -- Christine Howey
4 Minutes to Happy -- Playwright and actor Sarah Morton explores her own journey through nightmarish depression in this thoroughly absorbing one-woman show. She never lectures or complains, she just reveals a variety of moments that express how it feels to be cut off from one's own feelings while being swept along in a wave of free-floating emptiness. In 90 minutes, the idea of depression moves from an ethereal concept to one person's day-to-day reality. It is a tribute to Morton's writing and performing skills, as well as to the sensitive direction of Randy Rollison, that she can generate so many laughs while telling this agonizing story. Slim and intense, Morton does a skillful job of showing how she isn't even aware of how unhappy she appears: People she approaches look over her shoulder to see why she's apparently ready to cry, thinking there must be danger approaching. 4 Minutes takes the audience through near-suicidal despair to a "beginning of a beginning" marked by the realization that all anyone has is the moment. We have to reach for that, even when nothing else is within our grasp. Through March 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. -- Howey
Menopause the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Through May 30 at Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction toward Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed to come so easy to the performers. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those who are downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and want to do something else before heading home. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Or maybe a whole lot of real drinking. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey
Rounding Third -- In probing the bizarre behavior of little league coaches and parents, playwright Richard Dresser has put his finger on a rich topic, combining as it does the innocent aspirations of children with the often more complex motivations of their adult supervisors. But he manages to whiff on nearly every score. The jokes emanate mostly from Dresser's glib facility with clichés and stereotypes, not from any deeper source of personality or plot development. This two-character piece sets blue-collar manager Don against his new assistant, the baseball-ignorant Michael. Each man has a son on the team and, of course, Don's kid is the star pitcher, while Michael's stepson is a nearsighted klutz. Under the brisk direction of Jane Page, Michael David Edwards works hard to make Michael credible, and stocky and balding Tony Campisi has the perfect look and comic timing for Don. But Dresser is more interested in staging punch lines than in mounting a thoughtful comedy, so he relies on nonsensical reversals to fuel the flaccid story line. Given the unfulfilled potential on display here, a more accurate title might be Picked Off at First. Through March 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. -- Howey
Triple Espresso -- If Lawrence Welk had been a jokester and not a bandleader, this is the kind of comedy show he would have created. Squeaky-clean and with all the edge of a Nerf ball, this mildly humorous pastiche of familiar gags, magical flimflam, and shadow puppets (yes, shadow puppets!) is the perfect production to send your not-so-hip grandparents to on their anniversary. The plotless exercise is based on the entirely believable premise of a miserably unfunny 1970s comedy trio, back for a reunion at a coffeehouse owned by an unseen native of Zaire with a funny, African-sounding name (ha-ha). Thus the reason for a title that does not, alas, refer to the level of stimulation provided. Co-authors (with the absent Bill Arnold) Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg overdo their signature mugging, with the latter working his baffled-Dickie-Smothers double takes way too hard. Triple Espresso has been playing for a long time in some cities, thanks to its genial good humor. But if you like your comedy with bite, this one will gum you to death. At the Hanna, 2067 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey